Friday, April 12, 2024

The Future of Training at EPRI

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Why modern, learner-focused training is key to equipping the workforce utilities need.

Saving four weeks of training time for new plant technicians can be significant, both for utilities who hire them and for the employees eager to get up to speed and on the job. This was the case for Arizona Public Services (APS) in 2023. Their training team estimates total cost savings of $160,000 for 49 staff members participating in the streamlined nuclear fundamentals training course APS helped pilot for EPRI along with other member utilities.

The course is part of EPRI’s Common Initial Training (CIT) curriculum, featuring content delivered on a schedule convenient for participants and readily available instructor assistance. While the initial academic fundamentals programs were about eight weeks long, the EPRI program reduced the training time to about four weeks.

That four-week savings was critical to APS, said Lee Baker, Training Section Leader for Technical Training, “That number ($160,000) does not even count what we saved by not having to hire supplemental instructors. In addition, EPRI’s CIT program accelerated the learning experience and helped us meet hiring challenges because students can enroll at any time. Now, we don’t have to wait until enough new employees are available for a class.”

In addition to cost savings, the flexibility provided through the CIT model helps improve the onboarding experience for new employees, an important benefit as utilities focus on attracting and retaining workers in a competitive environment. Pamela Schwenk, an EPRI principal project manager dedicated to CIT development and implementation, brings a unique perspective to this role through her own experience training as a technician early in her career.

Traditionally, individual nuclear power plants have developed and delivered their own training curricula, even though a common set of foundational skills and knowledge applies across the industry.

“This has meant there is a training burden on utilities that isn’t necessary,” Schwenk said. “Individual sites will always need to do site-specific training because each site has its own unique technologies and systems to focus on. But you’d rather have instructors spending their time prepping for site-specific topics rather than the general instruction that applies to everyone.”

A desire to remove a big part of the training burden utilities face and improve the accessibility, efficiency, and standardization of instruction led to EPRI’s launch of the CIT initiative in 2020. The effort is part of a larger evolution to training at EPRI. It is informed by EPRI’s decades of experience developing and delivering training to nuclear power personnel across the globe. Along with APS, member utilities Ameren, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) collaborated in the initiative by reviewing course materials, providing feedback, and supporting pilot programs of the training.

The initial CIT curriculum focuses on training new chemistry and radiation protection technicians before site-specific and on-the-job learning. The process involved with developing the curriculum for the four-week fundamentals course reinforced the value of standardized instruction applicable across job disciplines, geographies, and plant types. Once the fundamentals curriculum is completed (about four weeks), participants move on to the more specialized chemistry or radiation protection courses, which require an additional 11–12 weeks and are offered with the same flexibility and support as fundamentals.

Engineer man checks with computer tablet reactor systems nuclear power plant

“We found that there were not only commonalities among the different sites across the industry, but there are also common requirements across the disciplines,” Schwenk said. “So, there are things that were required for a maintenance person that were also required for a chemistry person, regardless of whether you were at a BWR (boiling water reactor) in North Carolina or PWR (pressurized water reactor) in Arizona.”

Meeting an Industry Need

Besides eliminating the time and expense individual nuclear sites have traditionally devoted to developing and updating basic training materials, CIT also helps address larger industry personnel challenges. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) outlined the critical need for attracting, retaining, and properly training new employees to work in the nuclear power industry. The imperative to scale up hiring and training is particularly important because the nuclear workforce—like that of the utility industry overall—is aging and nearing retirement.

Existing nuclear power plants are also being relied on to produce carbon-free electricity for much longer than originally intended. In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses reactors to operate for 40 years. Once a reactor has been in operation for four decades, the NRC can renew its license for an additional 20 years at a time. Most nuclear reactors in the U.S. were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and most have already had their initial 40-year license extended by two decades.

All of which is to say that standardized and efficient training is more important than ever. Having EPRI host common training programs that the entire industry can access also makes it easier for workers to relocate to new plants without having to delay starting their new job for weeks to complete site-specific training. “If you’re in chemistry, this certificate you get from EPRI ought to be able to follow you,” said Angela Rucker, EPRI’s manager of training and learning design, who has extensive experience in nuclear training during her time at Duke Energy. “It would mean something more versus a certificate from a single nuclear plant.”

Integrating the Science of Learning

Standardized, easily accessible common training programs that allow utilities to focus their time on site-specific and on-the-job instruction is important. But it’s also essential that the content and delivery of the training is relevant and engaging to the employees it’s designed to help.

Rucker and a team of instructional designers and technologists have been working to modernize training to make it as engaging and impactful as possible. “We’ve been trying to build out our learning management system with more modern training by making sure that we’re not going more than five to 10 minutes without some engagement with learners,” Rucker said.

The changes to EPRI’s training development and delivery are guided by science. “There is lots of research on how the brain works, how it stores information, and most importantly, how it recalls information,” Rucker said. “We have learned that smaller chunks of learning followed by an opportunity to process, apply, and validate that information is extremely effective and grounded in science.” Rucker and her colleagues are currently working on a white paper outlining insights and applications of the science of learning.

These and other insights are being incorporated into EPRI’s approach to developing training. For example, with CIT, the program development began by gathering industry training requirements to ensure the technical accuracy of all the content produced. A subsequent step was to transform the technical information into digestible and engaging formats accessible at any time convenient for students.

workers discussing a project

A Focus on the Learner

Each course also has practice quizzes for students to continuously reinforce what they have learned. Exams for each module can be distributed electronically so the students can take tests at their work location with a site exam proctor present.

Consistent instructor office hours also provide ample opportunity for students to benefit from personal instruction. “They have an opportunity to go into virtual office hour sessions on Webex, where they can see the instructor from EPRI, ask questions, go over content, and review exams,” Schwenk said. “That’s one of the places I think the program shines. Our chemistry instructor does a fantastic job during exam review, walking students through questions they missed and highlighting how that question applies to their job.”

Tools to provide course or exam feedback are readily available. EPRI uses feedback from students and utility stakeholders to update and improve the content or correct any mistakes.

Integrating these lessons into future EPRI training programs is ultimately about answering one fundamental question—whether the training is for nuclear industry workers or those learning to install electric vehicle chargers. “How do we develop a workforce quicker and better that is focused on the job they’re doing?” Rucker said. “We want to understand how we get the learner the information and the skills they need to work quicker and more effectively.”

The answer to that question differs depending on the student. However, what increases the likelihood that training will prepare workers adequately is when those developing courses and exams view their work through the eyes of the student. “My team goes into every project as if they were the learner in the seat, and that’s what guides how they develop content,” Rucker said. “It’s about going forward offering options to the learner that best fit their needs. Our approach is to build entire programs with the learner in mind.”

EPRI Technical Experts:

Pamela Schwenk, Angela Rucker